Jenny Chan 陳詠欣
Dec 19, 2013

Beyond boring: B2B marketers inch toward storytelling

SHANGHAI – B2B audiences are made up of human beings, although you wouldn't know it by looking at most marketing directed towards them. Now, more folks are asking why B2B marketing shouldn't use the same storytelling tools proven to work in the B2C space.

Brokeface dramatised the anguish of broken electronics
Brokeface dramatised the anguish of broken electronics

There's no fooling ourselves: Business-to-business (B2B) marketing is boring. Or at least many people see it that way. And admittedly, many B2B products have the ‘boring’ moniker stamped all over them (COBOL programming tools, anyone?). Yet as homo sapiens, we all evolved telling stories sitting around a bonfire—even corporate buyers. So it's no wonder that a slow saunter away from rational, sales-driven, transaction-oriented activities in B2B marketing is underway.

“Engagement, not selling, is a more powerful way to reach and connect with the audience," said Mitchell Tan, Doremus‘s Greater China managing director at a symposium last month. "This holds true across every aspect of B2B, from data and strategy to creative expression."

The nature of selling a jet engine is different from a soda or a burger, since a single purchase can be valued at more than US$500,000. In the past, price has become the single biggest point of differentiation. Tan said companies must try to find new ways to think of a brand’s “true benefit of benefits”, instead of letting it be all about speedy business or technical information—the ‘sign up now and get a whitepaper’ proposition.

Eric Lin, Shanghai general manager at Siegel+Gale, echoed these thoughts. "B2B companies must articulate ‘why we matter’ instead of ‘what we do’ because customers will quickly tune you out if all you talk about is how great your product is," he said.

"Show them that you are trying to solve their problems or help them avoid those problems in the first place. Present a clear, credible and compelling promise. Bring the promise to life throughout the customer journey. And ensure proper alignment to deliver the promise at every step of the way".

The demand for a more storytelling-oriented type of branding is actually market-driven, according to Howard Sherman, Doremus’ president and CEO. Neither a whitepaper nor a product demonstration should be considered valuable branded content.

“When you launch a new forklift product into the construction market, for example, do scenario-based planning to capitalise on the lifetime value of that product for the buyer," he advised. "Ask questions like ‘does this forklift fit into the overall brand architecture? Why should people care about your forklift?”

Tan said it’s about the way the content connects to the audience—by telling a good story. Balance is required though: Too subtle and the audience may not make the connection; too obvious and it looks like a hard sell.

Corning designed its Brokeface campaign to get both original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and end-users to think about the glass used in notebooks. This is a “B2B2C, consumer-call tactic” to drive demand by getting people to talk about the heavy-duty glass material.

Salesman VS spinner-of-yarns

Consumer tactics also proved useful for BNY Mellon, which in 2012 tried to inspire new thinking about the brand, which was recognised in the US, but not in Asia, where it’s perceived as lagging behind the times. BNY Mellon also needed to go beyond existing institutional clients and constituents—largely investment firms, financial corporations, foundations and trusts.

So the bank aligned itself behind one of the most iconic artists ever: Andy Warhol. By sponsoring a five-city exhibition, its positioning was ‘where the business of art meets the art of business’. The five cities (Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing and Tokyo) are highly crucial markets for the bank, and the number of VIP attendees increased as the travelling-exhibition got underway.

A character named ‘Popping Andy’, a pop-art fanatic painted in head-to-toe pink was deployed to generate buzz on the streets in the lead up to each exhibition. Also, robust out-of-home ads maximised BNY Mellon’s exposure.

While art sponsorship is not new, the combination of social, experiential, events in an integrated approach is new, said Tan. “It’s using a B2C strategy to elevate a B2B objective". Also, B2C methods have additional benefits like employer branding and end-user education thrown in, added Lin.

What's the story, morning glory?

Engaging and connecting is not only important in the marketing communications arena but also true for managing public affairs. "We have seen companies engage the government to influence long-term regulatory change and reform,” said Walter Jennings, managing partner for Greater China at Kreab Gavin Anderson (KGA).

Jennings urged companies to adopt a higher degree of engagement with their stakeholders if they are to succeed in navigating and stimulating growth in China’s new political landscape. China’s J-Curve effect has been more pronounced than in the West, he said. Within 34 years of economic reform, China has achieved as much as the US or Europe did in 100 years. The development of high-speed trains in China is “very analogous” with the development of public policy, for instance.

“From China’s first plenary session in November 2013, we get a glimpse of Xi Jinping's bold regulatory moves for the first time," Jennings said. "For example, the Shanghai Free Trade Zone. There are hints of momentous change, though it will take us months, if not years, to see the effects.” These, and persistent corruption concerns, point to operating risks for MNCs.

In the wake of the GlaxoSmithKline case, Jennings’ advice to MNCs is to understand China’s anti-corruption acts; conduct supply-chain investigations; be prepared for ‘dawn raids’; ally with associations, consuls, trade groups and diplomats; and be cautious regarding public displays of wealth.  

“In addition, B2B marketers must recognise we are talking about policy, and not politics—policies that affect the recycling or exporting industries," Jennings added. "It’s not about getting clients in front of senior government leaders.”

China’s approach to policy change mirrors that of the EU, but with Chinese characteristics. It’s a long lead time that can take up to five years: a process that starts with identifying an issue, assembling a think-tank, drafting a policy by the State Council Legislative Affairs Office, and reviewing it by relevant ministries.

“There are no opportunities for outside engagement in the later part of this process," he said. "Furthermore, while national policy is quite clear on the surface, the wheels fall off the bus at the provincial, prefectural, and county levels”.

So what's an MNC to do? Faster ways to influence policy are to tell a story via the media to exert indirect public pressure. For instance, ASB Biodiesel, the developer of Hong Kong’s largest biodiesel plant has been lobbying for the mandatory blending of the cleaner burning fuel into diesel products, so the city can enjoy low-carbon transport and better air quality.

Its chief executive, Anthony Dixon, said Hong Kong lagged some of its regional neighbours that had implemented mandatory blending, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, South Korea and Taiwan. The back-story is, without policy support, ASB’s output will be consumed mostly in Europe instead of Hong Kong.

This is known as media outreach, one traditional B2B method alongside product websites, trade fairs, conferences, and direct mail, which are criticised as locked in vertical silos of their own. Sean Fitzgerald, executive vice president of Ketchum China, thinks of content marketing and social media as new armoury for B2B brands.

For example, Eaton Corporation, an industrial manufacturer, has been organising ‘Tech Days’. While still trade events in the traditional sense, these are morphing into forums to talk about not just Eaton but the broader electrical, hydraulic and mechanical power industry.

During its last ‘Tech Day’ in Hong Kong on 9 August, the company highlighted key trends in energy efficiency. Apart from the usual in-depth introductions of the company itself, a series of seminars discussed topics such as energy advantage architecture, air-flow-management solutions, fuse technology and future energy storage for uninterruptible power systems. The brand turned itself into a subject matter expert, said Fitzgerald.

Face to digital face

Although the effectiveness of in-person events is 78 per cent, compared with 50 per cent for digital media, the latter increases lead-generation potential. “More usage of webinars and videos in B2B communications is catching on in China, as teasers for white papers sometimes," Fitzgerald said. "Social media also gives a personality to what might be perceived as a dry or undynamic B2B organisation. Even B2B audiences want to be entertained.” As B2B marketing is already taking place offline in professional communities, so social media is just moving it online as one component of the mix, he added.

Of course, social-media marketing puts many B2B companies in a spin. Matt Broom, Doremus’s international president, said that it won’t be a walk in the park. He is just starting to see emergence of ‘social CRM’ even within the complex supply chains of B2B companies. In this respect, China is actually further along in the J-Curve than the US or UK. Social CRM can be smartly integrated with project management and billing platforms, and the earlier one starts, the better—while competitors are still hesitant. "Use infancy and nascency to your advantage," urged Broom.

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